Addressing the rise of childhood autoimmune diseases

I first developed autoimmune disease as a child when my parents discovered a small patch of hair loss at the back of my head. At the time, the focus was more on the hair loss itself rather than the underlying cause. Still, looking back, I can see how the events that led up to my first symptoms were the perfect storm in the development of autoimmune diseases, such as alopecia areata.


In recent years, there has been a concerning increase in the prevalence of autoimmune diseases among children. Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells in the body, such as the hair follicle. In my clinic, I have been working with more children who are developing autoimmune diseases at a young age, as I did.

So why are more children developing autoimmune diseases such as alopecia areata, coeliac disease, psoriasis, ulcerative colitis, juvenile arthritis and type 1 diabetes? 

While genetics play a role, the interplay between environmental factors, including nutrition and lifestyle cannot be ignored. In this article, we'll explore the reasons behind the surge in childhood autoimmune diseases and discuss strategies you can adopt to reduce the risk of autoimmune diseases through nutrition and lifestyle choices.

The complex web of causes

Genetic predisposition

While genetics contribute, they alone cannot explain the exponential increase in the recent childhood onset of autoimmune diseases. Genetic predisposition might make some children more susceptible, but environmental factors often trigger the onset of autoimmune conditions. However, if you have a family history of autoimmune disease, it is best to take preventative measures for your children.

Environmental triggers

Exposure to specific environmental triggers, such as toxins, infections, and dietary factors, may play a pivotal role in developing autoimmune diseases. For example, a significant correlation has emerged between streptococcal throat infections and the development of guttate psoriasis in children. Due to the immaturity of their immune systems, streptococcal infections can sometimes act as a trigger, leading to an autoimmune response resulting in the characteristic skin lesions of guttate psoriasis.

Recognising the signs of both streptococcal infections and psoriasis, practising good hygiene, and seeking timely medical attention can collectively contribute to minimising the risk of psoriasis developing. In addition, factors like air pollution, pesticides, antibiotic overuse, and eating an unhealthy Western diet, such as ultra-processed foods and high sugar, have been linked to increased autoimmune risk.


The role of stress in childhood autoimmune diseases is profound, as chronic or intense stress can disrupt the delicate balance of the immune system, triggering inflammation and compromising immune tolerance. 

Stress experienced during childhood can have lasting effects on the developing brain's stress response mechanisms, potentially influencing immune responses into adulthood. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) have been linked to the development of autoimmune disease in adulthood, which is why taking steps to prevent these effects in childhood can make a fundamental difference to your child’s long-term health. 

Recognising the impact of stress on immune function underscores the importance of creating supportive environments that prioritise the emotional well-being of your children. Teaching stress reduction techniques, fostering open communication, and promoting balanced routines, can play a crucial role in mitigating the potential contribution of stress to the development or exacerbation of autoimmune conditions.

Hygiene hypothesis

The hygiene hypothesis theory suggests that reduced exposure to infections and microbes in early childhood could lead to an imbalanced immune system, increasing the likelihood of autoimmune disorders. A super-clean environment might weaken the immune system's ability to distinguish between self and non-self, which is why exposure to some bacteria and infections as a child can aid the development of a strong and healthy immune response.

The role of nutrition and lifestyle

Nutrient-rich diet

A nutrient-rich diet is crucial for supporting a well-functioning immune system. Encourage a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Omega-3 fatty acids in fatty fish, flaxseeds, and walnuts have anti-inflammatory properties that may help mitigate autoimmune responses. And if your child is a picky eater as I was, there are many ways these nutrients can be disguised in meals such as smoothies, sauces and baked goods. 

Gut health

A growing body of research highlights the link between gut health and autoimmune diseases. Probiotics and prebiotics can promote a healthy gut microbiome, supporting immune balance. Incorporating yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and fibre-rich foods into your child’s diet is helpful. 

Vitamin D 

Vitamin D plays a crucial role in immune system regulation, and studies suggest that vitamin D deficiency as a child may contribute to the development of autoimmune disease. Encourage safe sun exposure and include vitamin D-rich foods like fatty fish, fortified dairy products, and egg yolks in the diet.

Stress management 

Chronic stress can negatively impact the immune system. Encourage stress-reduction techniques such as mindfulness, yoga, and outdoor activities to promote emotional well-being. Many of my clients now do family yoga, and not only is it helpful for stress management but an excellent opportunity for some family bonding too!

Physical activity

Regular exercise supports overall health and can contribute to a balanced immune system. If your child can, aim for at least 60 minutes of physical activity daily, depending on your child's age.

Preventive measures

Taking a proactive approach when your child first start exhibiting signs of autoimmune disease is paramount for several compelling reasons. 

Firstly, the early stages of autoimmune conditions offer a critical window for intervention, allowing for better disease management and improved long-term outcomes. Swift action enables healthcare professionals to accurately diagnose the condition, initiate appropriate treatment plans, and provide necessary guidance so that you can start to incorporate these interventions swiftly.

Additionally, intervening early can help prevent the progression of the disease, minimising potential complications and improving your child's quality of life. Moreover, young bodies are more adaptable and responsive to treatment and natural therapies, making it an opportune time to implement strategies to curb inflammation, manage symptoms, and modulate the immune response.

Overall, a proactive approach empowers you with the knowledge and tools to navigate the challenges of childhood autoimmune diseases effectively, ensuring the best possible health trajectory for your children.

The increase in childhood autoimmune diseases is a complex issue with genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors at play. While you may not have full control over genetic predisposition, you can certainly influence your children's environment and lifestyle choices. 

By prioritising a nutrient-rich diet, promoting a healthy gut, managing stress, and incorporating regular physical activity, we can take steps to reduce the risk of autoimmune diseases in children. It's a collaborative effort involving medical professionals, nutritionists, families, and communities to create an environment that fosters optimal immune system development.

When I first developed autoimmune disease, we didn’t have the knowledge that we do today. My parents tried their best, but they didn’t realise that diet and lifestyle played such a vital role in preventing the development of autoimmune diseases. 

There is still much more research required to understand the complexities of these conditions. Still, we know that taking these positive steps for children’s health can be a game-changer in their recovery and prevent the development of more severe autoimmune diseases.

If you would like to chat about how I might be able to support your family with their health, please feel free to book a free initial consultation.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Nutritionist Resource are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London W1G & Harrogate HG1
Written by V. J. Hamilton, Autoimmune Disease Expert | BSc (Immunology), DipION, mBANT
London W1G & Harrogate HG1

VJ Hamilton is a qualified Nutritional Therapist and member of BANT, focusing on autoimmunity including inflammatory skin disorders, fatigue & neurological issues as well as gut health. VJ has a BSc in Biochemistry and Immunology which she uses in her practice, using only evidence-based nutritional therapies to support chronic conditions.

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